The Story Behind “Spies Like Us” by Paul McCartney and Its Unlikely Connection to ‘SNL’

Paul McCartney‘s catalog, both during and after his time with The Beatles, has been analyzed like few musical bodies of work. But what if we told you that the guy posted a Top 10 hit in the U.S. that almost nobody talks about these days? The song in question is “Spies Like Us,” which he released in 1985 and then watched as it rose to No. 7 on the Billboard pop charts early the following year.

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What was the song about? What about the movie of the same name that featured the track? And why did the song get left behind a bit when it came to its release? Let’s find out all about “Spies Like Us.”

The ‘SNL’ Connection

McCartney developed a friendship with Saturday Night Live head honcho Lorne Michaels through the years, and he has appeared on the show often as a live performer and occasional cameo actor in sketches. Perhaps it’s not surprising then that John Landis, who made several movies with SNL actors, called upon Macca for a song for his 1985 film Spies Like Us.

After all, the film starred Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd, two Saturday Night Live legends, as a pair of bumbling spies. McCartney had already proven himself in the genre when he and wife Linda penned the theme to the 1973 James Bond flick Live and Let Die, which earned them Academy Award nominations. McCartney was leaning toward rehashing that feel for “Spies Like Us,” until the director pushed him in another direction.

“John Landis rang me and said he wanted an uptempo rock ‘n’ rolly thing,” McCartney said in a press release at the time. “I thought I might have done a Bondy type song—the 75-piece orchestra, more melodic, with maybe an Eastern touch, the known ingredients for a ‘spy’ type of song. I think one of the fun things about what I’m doing now is varying those things a bit.”

As a result, “Spies Like Us” received a rollicking arrangement that’s far more playful than the pomp and circumstance of “Live and Let Die.” McCartney plays every instrument on the track except synthesizers (provided by Eddie Rayner), while also getting some help from Linda and a few others on backing vocals. He even churned out an amusing video with the stars of the film to seal the deal.

Where Did This Song Go?

With all the hype of the film and the video helping it out, “Spies Like Us”glided into the higher regions of the pop charts on both sides of the Atlantic. And then a funny thing happened: It was unavailable to purchase outside the single version.

It’s not unusual for artists to contribute a song to a movie without including that song on one of their own studio albums. The problem that developed with “Spies Like Us” is that it wasn’t included on the movie’s official soundtrack album either. That album was reserved for the film score by the legendary composer Elmer Bernstein. As a result, it seemed to disappear the minute it stopped getting airplay, and it’s been playing catch-up since.

McCartney was in the midst of recording his Press to Play album when he took the time out to dash off “Spies Like Us.” That’s likely why, when the song finally received a release on a long-player of some sort, it came as a bonus track on a special edition of Press to Play that was released in 1993.

What is the Meaning of “Spies Like Us”?

McCartney definitely was having some cheeky fun with the lyrics to “Spies Like Us,” which makes sense considering the madcap tone of the movie. On the one hand, he inserts some sneaky innuendo, as the narrator makes plans with a female fellow agent: Hey don’t feel afraid / Of an undercover aid.

There are also subtle references to the bumbling nature of the characters played by Aykroyd and Chase. For example, We get there by hook or by crook / We don’t do a thing by the book, or Never needed special clothes / How we did it no one knows / Guess we must have had what it took. These lines play into the accidental nature of the characters eventually getting the girls and beating the bad guys by the end of the film.

“Spies Like Us” might not be the most profound piece of songwriting McCartney ever did, but it’s perfect for the kind of lark that this track needed to be. It’s too bad that the song ended up lost in the shuffle because of its unorthodox release. With streaming, you can check it out now, no problem, and unearth this somewhat silly, somewhat forgotten gem.

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Photo by Carlos Alvarez/Redferns

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